RARA-AVIS: The House of Hard-boiled

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 27 Mar 2003

Obviously miker and me want different things in books:

To wit,

>Unless you are already familiar with what
>Pelecanos is talking about, the music he mentions tells
>you nothing. It's like an insider joke.
>It damages shelf life. Maybe he's writing for the
>present and doesn't care how it will read in 30 years.

Nah. When you write about an era, you should write about it, not worry about someone thirty years down the line. To write about Pelecanos' (and my) generation, and not mention the pop culture of the time is to miss an important aspect. His people are of their time, which is what all characters should be. Warts and all. And it's certainly a lot more honest than all these allegedly middle-aged detective characters now who seemingly only listen to music from the jazz era, or make it a point of pride that they know nothing of the popular culture of their own time. At least Estleman allows Amos Walker to know that he's an anachronism.

As for music, well, for some people -- and a lot of people around George's age -- music does matter. Vitally. And music is often a powerful distinguishing trait. Which is why the idea of a street smart urban gangbanger in hip hop drag listening to Dolly Parton or an elderly, wealthy retired doctor sipping claret in his study and listening to Rage Against the Machine is notable. Certain types of people generally listen to certain types of music.

Hell, who smokes Fatimas these days? Who drives a Duesenberg? Doesn't make the Op stories any weaker (though I noticed, while prowling through the special collections at UCLA that Fatima was an advertiser in Black Mask -- early product placement?)

The idea is to open yourself up to another era, another generation, another world; not wish for books to be set in some bland, colourless, neutral time.

Same goes for place: Would Chandler's or Parker's or Pelecanos' books really be better off if they weren't so specific to Los Angeles, Boston and D.C. respectively?

Hammett was great, but San Francisco could have been Newark or London, for all the specific detail he put in THE MALTESE FALCON.


>I think it's poor, bordering
>on pathetic. It sounds to me like a cozy version of violence.
>Hitchens should have paid more attention to Hammett. "Seemed
>to explode?" "Splintered the quiet?" How many words would
>Hammett need to describe this scene? Here's my Hammett ver-
>"A leather sap coming fast. His roscoe sneezed kerchow."

I actually like that line about "splintering the silence." Your suggestion is pure parody. Not everyone who writes hard-boiled has to toe the Hammett line. Bellem didn't, Chandler didn't, Brackett, Browne, Spillane, Macdonald, Davis, Latimer, etc. didn't.

Hell, I actually like the two Hitchens' SLEEP books... A LOT. I -- and a lot of other people -- think they're a long way from poor or pathetic. Sure, they're probably closer to Chandler than Hammett, but that just means they're of different styles, not necessarily better or worse.

Ditto the notion of neutral versus time-and-place specificity. Evidently there are many rooms in the House of Hard-boiled. It would probably be really crowded if we all slept in the same room.

Oh, and as for books with CDs, Michael Connelly's new one comes with a CD if you buy it through Barnes & Noble.


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